Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

Christmas Mysticism: Contemplatives in action


In his book Grey Eminence, Aldous Huxley wrote: “The mystics are channels through which a little knowledge of reality filters down into our human universe of ignorance and illusion. A totally unmystical world would be completely blind and insane.”

Many would agree with that assessment, although Richard Dawkins and his followers might take some persuading.

The Spanish founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola, thought that a mystic was “a contemplative in action”, which brings us on to our title theme.

If we take Natural Theology to be knowing God through the reason, or intellect, howsoever that differs, and Revelatory Theology through scripture and other outside forces, such as nature, Mystical Theology is the direct, personal apprehension of the divine by contemplative experience.

Its character is qualitatively different from any other form of knowledge, a fact only appreciated by those who have realised it. There is really very little to separate the true mystic and the contemplative, unless we add a preference for action, as Ignatius suggested.

Let’s now take at a look at the words, contemplative and contemplation. The former, nominally an adjective, has taken on the character of a noun — a thing, rather than a way of being a thing. It is not a word that is used much these days, except among the Church’s religious, another word that has curiously leapt into noun status.

New Agers almost never talk about contemplatives. The man in the street wouldn’t be caught dead using the term, and if you mentioned it in a pub, you would probably be barred for your pains. It has become rather technical in its usage and very much a niche subject.

Contemplation, on the other hand, has a wider range of uses: jocularly, as in “contemplating one’s navel,” or with gravitas, as in “you should seriously contemplate your future, young man”. It covers a kind of thoughtfulness, a reverie or, as used to be said, a brown study.

Chambers considers it “attentive viewing … a meditative condition of mind”. The Concise Oxford Dictionary prefers, “gazing, or viewing mentally,” which to my mind, doesn’t quite crack it.

Christmas Humphreys, the late Buddhist Judge, was more precise still: “If concentration were the means, and meditation the instrument, contemplation is the goal.” Perfect!

Most mystics would agree with that, and the Christian texts certainly use the word as defining the highest stratum of their art. As an aspiration, it is a constant attending to God, the “one simple thing necessary” of The Cloud of Unknowing.

Consider this passage from Luke (10 38-42), which indicates Jesus’s high regard for the contemplative life over the active one: “Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’s feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen the better part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Jesus recognises Mary’s calling to the contemplative life and gives his approval, even though it means her neglecting the commonplaces of daily living. His religion is not essentially corporatist or social, as our version of it has become, but has strong elements of the personal and inward. We should say, contemplative.

The contemplative then, is one who, through his personal experience, has outgrown the need for institutional support. He, or she, is a mystic without the external trappings, who reaches beyond Augustine’s ideal life of reading, meditation and reflection.

To leave out the supernatural (as dictionaries tend to do) or, in Aquinas’s phrase the operant grace, is to denude him of his essence. All true contemplatives receive an infusion of what Christians call the Holy Spirit (see John 14 15-18 and 15 26, 27), and Zen masters call Satori.

But what is the best definition? It is this: a contemplative is one who seeks and has found contemplation, which is spiritual enlightenment, and nothing less.

John Evans

Publishing soon: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world.

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